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Architects must help stop a climate catastrophe

Emily Booth

Buildings account for nearly a third of all carbon emissions, so the profession is in prime position to avert a global-warming apocalypse, writes Emily Booth

Shutterstock 574570984

Shutterstock 574570984

Brexit? It pales into insignificance against this week’s news that we’re heading for climate catastrophe. I remember shouting at the radio during one of those question-an-eminent-panel programmes, where the final, quickfire jocular question was about eating beef. Much guffawing as the great and the good talked about how much they liked their meat and that nothing would get in the way of them eating a nice juicy steak etc etc. Someone piped up about the environmental reasons for eating less dead cow (deforestation, methane) and stood out like a party pooper.

When we throw the plastic wrapper in the bin, when we eat the steak, when we rev the car engine, we know that our actions cause harm. The world is choking, the oceans are clogged with plastic, the air has that metallic aftertaste of fumes. We can see it, taste it, feel it; we can’t avoid it anymore. Certain personality types can laugh at where we’re at – and deny it. Others (most of us) internalise a sort of generalised worry and hopelessness and bumble on. Only a few seem to really fight back.

‘Show us the numbers,’ say the guffawers. Well, now the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has. It’s taken three years of research, but the panel has issued a special report on the impact of global warming at 1.5°C. Going past this key number is, according to a BBC report, ‘dicing with the planet’s livability’.

Governments have got a massive task ahead – if they have the will – but the individual has a place in making a change. Lifestyle changes can make a big difference, and that is an empowering message. We can insulate our homes better. We can walk or cycle short distances. We can use videoconferencing instead of business travel.

This is a world in which the skill and dedication of individual architects and their practices will be important. ‘Cities’, for example, is listed as one of the four big global systems that need rapid and significant change. And who knows cities better than architects? As Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, says: ‘The construction and property industry in the UK is an economic juggernaut, and our buildings account for approximately 30 per cent of carbon emissions. It is also the industry with the most cost-effective means of reducing carbon emissions so it will be a vital catalyst for change in the wider economy.’

Architects think about how buildings use energy, and how people use buildings. They think of how places interlink and how people travel between them. They understand masterplanning, and are innovative in their approaches. They are well connected, manoeuvring throughout the property eco-system. They have an ability to design sustainable buildings and retrofit existing stock – and they have a grave responsibility to do so. Now it’s time to up the ante; for the profession to position itself as part of the solution. Time for the climate-change fightback. 

Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    How? Architects are no longer, around here, in a position to even suggest to clients that architects have a professional obligation to something other than them. Very rarely in over 30 years has a client requested a low carbon / low energy building so save the climate nor their running costs. Unfortunate but true, perhaps the attitude is changing in cities?

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  • How? the news that the government has turned down the expansion of a large out-of-town shopping mall near the M4 / M5 intersection outside Bristol is surely 'one small step for mankind'.

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